‘In the golden half-light of a midsummer’s evening, the sort where any kind of magic can occur, and often does, in the midst of a party held in a wild and rambling garden, stood Pierre, teetering on highly unsuitable heels, surrounded by a symphony of overripe roses.’
On that midsummer evening, Pierre, the daughter of a bumbling botanist and a ravishing Italian soprano, sweet and shy and gangly as a baby giraffe, meets a man with dancing eyes.
Alas, in the midst of a glorious affair, an indiscretion is committed and Pierre flees to New York. But forgetting her beloved proves far harder than she imagines.
Magical, bittersweet, and utterly charming, Sophie Dahl’s debut is an old-fashioned romance for a modern-day world.
The plot of ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ is quite simple: Boy meets Girl, Boy screws up, Girl runs away to Major City (in this case New York). Will Boy win back Girl? Take a guess. The plot is very predictable, but Sophie Dahl has a very beautiful style that is highlighted by the easy storyline. ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ is filled with lovely phrases like the one provided in the blurb, and there is a subtle humour in many of Dahl’s most romantic or heartbreaking scenes:
‘As day poured through the bedroom window, Pierre opened her eyes to see seven tiny men singing madrigals on the deck of the Glimmety Glammety. Her beloved appeared at the bedroom door.
“I’m mad about you,” he proclaimed.
“Lucky, lucky me” she said.
He later won a sweeping victory at Scrabble which made her cross and distinctly ungracious.’
While the beautiful turns of phrase beguiled me, the lack of character development or relatable characters was annoying. Pierre works at a bookshop and lives in a houseboat, but can somehow afford Christian Louboutin heels and flights to New York. Presumably her Soprano mother and Botanist father help to subsidise this. When in New York, she lives off the generosity of a friend of her mother’s and a job modelling for an artist. When money is tight they go to China Town to buy fans and slippers. Pierre never really changes as a character – she doesn’t find a purpose or inner strength and if anything appears to become more vapid and clueless than she was at the beginning of the novella. Despite the problems in the relationship before her boyfriend’s ‘indiscretion (the nature of which is never explained) at the close of the book none of this is resolved and they simply state that they love each other and can’t stop.
As a result of the lack of character development, the fantastic illustrations by Annie Morris felt more like candy to distract the reader from the novella’s flaws rather than added value to a story. Line drawing and watercolours are the primary techniques, and they flow beautifully with the narrative. My one issue is that the character Blue is always drawn with bare breasts, for no comprehensible reason. In a world where the female form is already over sexualised, and many feminist artists retaliate by portraying women’s breasts in art for political reasons, having a character drawn with her tits out makes me confused and wary. It felt like the author and artist were making an attempt at being edgy by ‘daring’ to have nudity.
Overall, ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ resembles its main character Pierre – a thing of beauty, but with little depth. This novella is fun to read and the illustrations are both gorgeous and quirky, but it isn’t a story that stays with you for weeks after you close the final pages.